Written by Amy Qin
When hundreds of thousands of people in Hong Kong peacefully took to the streets last month, they had a few specific demands, including the withdrawal of an unpopular bill and an investigation into police abuse. In recent days, they added another call: the right to direct elections.
This latest demand brought into focus the issue that has been quietly seething at the heart of the protests: Hong Kong’s increasingly fraught relationship with mainland China and the authoritarian ruling Communist Party.
That long-standing anxiety flared last week when a small group of demonstrators stormed the city’s legislature, blacked out the name for mainland China from Hong Kong’s official emblem and spray-painted slogans calling for universal suffrage.
It was a dramatic rebuke of a political system that protesters say created a ruling class that has become more beholden to Beijing than to Hong Kong since the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule 22 years ago. The protesters’ forceful charging of the legislature brought this anger so jarringly to the fore that even a few members of the pro-establishment camp have urged the government in recent days to revisit steps toward political reforms.
On Sunday, when tens of thousands of protesters once again urged the government to fully withdraw a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China, they also called for the legislature to be dismissed and for free elections.
“Mainland China worries us the most,” said Patrick Luk, 37, an administrative staffer at a community college who joined the protest with his wife and 5-year-old son. That is why, he said, universal suffrage is his most important priority.
“They force people to adhere to their doctrines,” Luk added, referring to the Communist Party. “They want us to be faithful to them.”
Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, has suspended the bill indefinitely but not fully withdrawn it, and has not indicated any willingness to meet the protesters’ demands. The protests were piling pressure on Lam as a few pro-establishment politicians on Monday called for a shake-up of her senior advisers.
Protesters and pro-democracy lawmakers want to protect the high degree of autonomy Hong Kong was promised when it was returned to China in 1997 under a policy known as “one country, two systems.” That autonomy is guaranteed until 2047, but the Communist Party and its security apparatus have increasingly encroached on the territory.
The last sustained protest movement demanding a direct say in the election of the territory’s chief executive ended in failure in 2014. Since then, Beijing has intervened to remove six politicians elected to Hong Kong’s legislature, a major setback for the opposition. Several others were disqualified from running in local elections by officials who questioned the sincerity of their belief that Hong Kong is an “inalienable part” of China.
As a result, protesters and experts say, the political playing field is so far out of balance that many of Hong Kong’s youth have felt shut out and blame the generations of politicians before them for compromising their futures for the sake of seeking Beijing’s favor.
The experts and protesters say this may help explain why, when those frustrations boiled over at the legislature last week, many others in the movement remained sympathetic, seeing it as a culmination of years of pent-up anger.
“At first, I was shocked by their behavior, too, but then I understood,” said Candy Wong, 56, a dentist and mother of two who joined a rally of thousands of parents Friday to express support for the protesters.
“Those young people are not rioters,” Wong added. “They have tried everything else to make the government listen, but nothing has worked.”
Some politicians in the pro-establishment camp, possibly with an eye on future elections, have also spoken out about the need for the government to tackle the political structure that is the root cause of the protesters’ anger.
Jasper Tsang, a former president of the Legislative Council and a founding member of the largest pro-Beijing party in Hong Kong, turned heads last week when he raised the possibility of revisiting the debate over political reform.
“One of the main reasons there is so much anger is that the Hong Kong people, especially the youth, haven’t been given any hope for universal suffrage,” Tsang told HK01, a local news site.
Ronny Tong, a lawyer and member of the chief executive’s top advisory body, the Executive Council, echoed that suggestion.
“If the current difficulty in some way is caused by a failure of political reform, then we should consider bringing back political reform,” Tong said in an interview. He added that if the democratic lawmakers agreed to talk without any preconditions, he could “guarantee that the Hong Kong government would be willing to do just that.”
Samson Yuen, an assistant professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong who studies local social movements, said most protesters agreed that Hong Kong needed more democracy but that some were concerned it could distract from the movement’s more achievable demands.
“There have been a lot of splits even within the protesters regarding whether people should shift their demands to asking for democracy because that’s not what this movement is for,” Yuen said.
There is also the question of what political reform would even look like. Beijing once offered a form of direct elections that would have allowed the public to elect Hong Kong’s chief executive from a slate of two or three preapproved candidates.
But pro-democracy legislators voted down the measure in 2015, and Beijing’s supporters in the legislature said then that the Communist Party was unlikely to offer more generous terms. Since then, Hong Kong has continued to rely on a 1,200-member committee heavily weighted in Beijing’s favor to pick its chief executive.
In an editorial Monday, the pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po dismissed the calls for universal suffrage as irrelevant and having no legal basis. The paper argued that no city leader or government would “be able to, or have the authority to” agree to such a demand.
Last week, Lau Siu-kai, vice chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semiofficial research institute with ties to Beijing, told a Hong Kong broadcaster that any debate on political reform would only “further divide society.”
The way to resolve the issue is to improve the government’s communication with the public, Lau and others said.
“None of our leaders have been able to articulate a vision of our future under ‘one country, two systems’ which has been inspiring to our young people,” said Regina Ip, a pro-establishment lawmaker and another member of the Executive Council.
Calls for political reforms are likely to be rejected by the Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping, who has strengthened authoritarian controls across China since coming to power in 2012, experts said.
Xi has already made an extraordinary concession to the protesters by allowing Lam to suspend the bill, said Ma Ngok, an associate professor of government at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. So the chances that Xi would agree to political reforms in Hong Kong, Ma said, are slim.
“Given that the entire country is still well on the road to full autocratic rule,” Ma said, “it’s unlikely they would initiate any kind of liberalization in Hong Kong.”
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